Returning Home: Cathay Pacific First Class HKG to ORD, ORD Flagship Lounge, and American Sucks

This is the sixteenth and final in a series of posts documenting my January 2019 trip around the world, which took me to Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Chiang Mai, and Hong Kong.  You can read my last post, which summarized my time spent in Hong Kong, here.

Cathay Pacific Flt. 806  Hong Kong to Chicago (HKG-ORD)
Boeing 777, First Class
Sched. Dep. 11:50am        Sched. Arr. 12:20pm
Actual Dep. 11:55am        Actual Arr. 12:39pm

American Airlines Flt. 2499 Chicago to Washington-National (ORD-DCA) Boeing 737-800, Economy
Sched. Dep. 5:08pm          Sched. Arr. 8:00pm
Actual Dep. 6:00pm          Actual Arr. 9:02pm

Part of the origin of this round-the-world trip was the ability to fly Cathay Pacific from Africa to Asia to the US, with the first leg in business and second in first class, for only 70,000 Alaska miles. Cathay does not offer first class on all its flights to the U.S., but there was availability on my preferred date into Chicago. Because of Alaska’s award routing rules, I couldn’t get from Chicago to DC on the same ticket, so I booked a separate ticket on American from ORD to DCA for several hours after the HKG-ORD flight landed, using BA Avios.  This would actually be a repeat of the last two legs of my trip home from Taiwan three years ago. In retrospect, I think I should have just flown business class on Cathay’s nonstop to Dulles for 7,500 fewer miles, as I found the Cathay First ground experience in HKG really disappointing this time, connecting at ORD sucked, and American is the worst.

My flight wasn’t until 11:55am, but I thought I would take advantage of the first-class ground experience, so at 8:00am I was in the Intercontinental Grand Stanford waiting for the Airport Express shuttle bus. I was a little worried I might not get on, as I was one of ten guests waiting by the time the bus arrived at 8:15am. Thankfully, the Intercontinental was only the second stop on the route. The bus filled up at the next stop and proceeded right to Kowloon Station, where I returned my Octopus card and got a refund of the deposit and money I had left on it. While there is in-town check-in for Cathay Pacific at the station, I decided to skip it because there really was no reason and I thought linking the tickets might be easier handled by a First Class agent at the airport.  I was on an 8:33am crowded Airport Express train—filled with people going to some fencing expo—and at 8:54am at the airport.

Main Terminal at HKIA

Cathay has a nice First Class check-in area, but I was told I could not use it for flights to the U.S.  That seems dumb. The agent escorted me to a counter in the regular area where there was a very brief security check. The friendly agent had no problem tagging my bag through to DCA (even though I’d have to pick it up to clear customs in Chicago), but told me I’d have to talk to AA to pay the baggage fee. That was weird. I was given a “courtesy” security channel pass, but couldn’t find any special security line so just went through the regular security and made it to immigration at 9:13am.

Nice Cathay First Class Check-in, Except for Adam

There are two First Class lounges for Cathay at HKG, the Pier and the Wing. Last time I went to the Pier and really liked it. But the Wing has its loyal fans, and was closer to my gate, so I figured I would try it. Reader, I did not like it.  It was very crowd and very loud. It felt no more relaxing than any standard business class lounge I’ve been to, partially because it is open air and looking over on the terminal. It was also packed with loud kids.

The Wing, Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge, Hong Kong International Airport

There is a sit-down restaurant, the Haven, which I figured I’d try even though I wasn’t hungry. Breakfast probably isn’t the best representation but….it wasn’t good? I had the Portobello Mushroom scrambled eggs with a bagel and I make better breakfast at home. There was also no salt or sauces at the table, and it was in desperate need of something.

Breakfast Menu, the Wing
Breakfast Food, Cathay Pacific First Class lounge, the Wing

Since I still had ninety minutes until my boarding time, I headed over to the Pier, taking the train to the other side of the terminal. The Pier offers free massages, which I took advantage of last time, but at 9:55am, the next availability wasn’t until 1:30pm.  That’s insane. I didn’t eat or drink much, but I still found the space much more relaxing than the Wing.

The Pier, First Class lounge, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong

At this point, I had a boarding pass and was checked in for my AA flight from ORD to DCA.  I was on a complimentary Gold Elite status period, so I figured I’d see if AA would allow me to add my AA number to the ticket instead of my BA one. I vaguely remembered that AA wasn’t allowing that, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask nicely. Famous last words. Not only did the Twitter agent rudely tell me that wasn’t allowed, but after our DM, I realized he had unchecked me in for the flight and unassigned my seat.  Well that made me livid. The only seats it would let me select at that point were in the rear two rows of the plane. I confronted the agent, who said I had been in “preferred” seats and I shouldn’t have been able to select those seats.  (I don’t know if that was actually the case, but I had just selected seats on the website with my BA frequent flyer number.) Even if that was the case, it is insane that an agent would tinker with a customer’s reservation in that way without consent, or without informing the passenger.  If I hadn’t checked, I could have found myself missing the check-in deadline and stuck in Chicago. I filed a formal complaint with American, which did nothing of course.  So after that, and a March experience where a terrible agent in Phoenix rudely told me I need to “buy a suitcase that fits in overhead bins,” when I tried to board with the rest of Main Cabin Extra with my standard Travelpro carry-on that fits in overhead bins, and then threatened to call the pilot when I said “let me take my coat out,” I am not flying American again. I’ve had just too many negative customer experiences with American, and in the past two years as a Delta loyalist again, I’ve really seen a major difference in customer service.  Boycotting American as a DCA-based flyer is really hard, though – hence I am actually writing this blog post on board a Sun Country flight to Minneapolis rather than taking an American flight (the Delta flight was super-expensive).

I was back at my boarding gate at 11:08am for a scheduled 11:10am boarding time. Boarding was a mess; there was a separate line for first class and high-tier elites to enter a security area.  They let business class into the area before boarding even started so it was just a mess.  At 11:12am, they announced boarding for all passengers with disabilities, all elite passengers, and all premium cabins, so that was a cluster; I was on the plane at 11:16am.

Boarding mess, Cathay Pacific HKG to ORD

The plane was exactly the same as the 777 I flew last time, so check out that review for details about the seats – which are starting to show some age. I had selected seat 1K, but someone asked me to switch to 1A, which was the opposite window, as he was traveling with someone in the center section and the seat design means that there’s a privacy wall on the left-hand side of the center seats, which makes it hard to interact with someone on the left window seat.

Cathay Pacific First Class, Boeing 777
Cathay Pacific First Class, Boeing 777

Boarding wasn’t relaxing as the entire business class cabin boarded through first class. Only after they had mostly passed through did the Senior Purser come over and introduced herself and took a drink order.  The not-senior Purser then came by and poured me a glass of champagne (Piper Heidsieck Rare 2002), presented nuts, and introduced herself.  She offered me a choice of size medium or large pajamas, and presented me with the same Aesop amenity kit as last time.  It seems odd that they wouldn’t change up the amenity kit at all in three years.

Pre-departure drink/nuts, Cathay Pacific First
Cathay Pacific First Class Aesop Amenity Kit

The pajamas were blue this time, and came with slippers and an eye mask. I changed and settled in, and perused the menu pre-departure.  Thankfully, unlike Cathay’s business class seats on the A350, you can watch the IFE while the screen is stowed.  It’s an older system than on the A350, though, and seemed to have fewer movies.  And while some 777s have wifi, mine didn’t. I loaded up “Sorry to Bother You,” and we pushed back at 11:55am, and were in the air after a rough take-off at 12:19pm

It me. #Laviating

The service was generally good- with very pleasant and friendly flight attendants. It did seem to take a long time for the meal service to start, but I guess that doesn’t matter so much on a 14-hour flight.  Right after take-off, I was brought a shrimp and pickled vegetable amuse bouche and offered another drink; but it wasn’t until 1:12pm, nearly an hour into flight, that meal service actually began.

Amuse bouche, Cathay Pacific ORD-HKG First Class
Cathay Pacific First Class HKG-ORD Lunch and Drink menu

There was a bit of theater with my table being set with a bread basket, water and wine glasses, and the signature first class hand-written note.  I went all out on the food, starting with the caviar with all the fixings – though I probably enjoyed the bread more.  The cauliflower cream soup was kind of runny- not creamy, and the salad was nothing special.

Lunch service, Cathay Pacific First Class, HKG-ORD

For the main, I would have gone with the Chinese meal but I don’t like lobster, so I went with the lamb, which was presented with a gravy boat poured at my seat, and was phenomenal.  The sides accompanying it- a bean, carrot, potato medley- not so much.

I skipped the fruit and cheese course, and asked for the apple tart and ice cream. I was told I’d have to wait ten minutes for the ice cream to soften. I waited; it still wasn’t soft when it came.  It was plated beautifully, though, and I had a decaf coffee with it. 

Apple tart and ice cream, Cathay Pacific First Class HKG-ORD

After lunch, I was given a hot towel and truffles. When my tray was cleared around two hours into flight, the flight attendant offered to make my bed up, which I accepted. With the duvet and mattress pad, I had the best sleep I’ve ever had on a plane – sleeping more than eight hours, waking up only a few times due to some extremely loud snoring of other passengers.  Granted, I was probably tired from going around the world and to four destinations in eleven days, but the seat helped!! (So I didn’t try anything on the snack menu, which sounded delicious.)

Cathay Pacific First Class Boeing 777 Seat
Comfy

As soon as I woke up, the FA noticed and offered me breakfast, about 2.5 hours before landing.  It was a huge meal, starting with fruit and a pastry basket with an apple Danish, croissant, and muffin. Then there was a choice of cereals: Special K, Corn Flakes, or muesli.  Then there was yogurt.  Then, finally, was the main; I went with the eggs, which came with bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, and a potato cake.  The eggs were fine, nothing else was – the potato cake was inedible and the bacon was…toothsome.

Cathay First Class HKG-ORD Snack and Breakfast menu
So much breakfast! Cathay First HKG-ORD

And then soon enough we were approaching Chicago, getting some incredible views of downtown and Lake Michigan. We landed a little bit late, but there was no line at Global Entry and I was at baggage claim five minutes after I got off the plane.  My bag was on the belt five minutes later. Overall, a perfectly lovely flight in the air.

Chicago and Lake Michigan

Of course, connecting from Cathay First to American in any cabin is not a fun experience. I brought my suitcase to the AA transfer desk in Terminal 5 since the Cathay agent had said I’d have to pay for my bag, but the AA agent said I didn’t, so that was good.  In January, the interterminal trains at O’Hare were not running, so there were replacement buses.  Which meant I had to wait outside in a tent on a very long line in seven-degree weather. When the bus came, it was super crowded and you couldn’t hear a word the driver was saying announcing stops, and I just wanted to get off.

While I was on the bus, I loaded the AA app, and of course my original seat was now available and free.  I went through Pre-check security and was at the Flagship Lounge at 1:28pm, an hour after landing – so not a quick transfer process. The agent at first gave me an attitude and said, “Oh, are you a British Airways elite?” when I handed my Cathay First boarding pass (I don’t know why), but I nicely explained I was coming from a long-haul first-class flight and thus had access per Oneworld rules. He said “Yeah, you do, but I just wanted to know.” Um, okay?  Love American Airlines.

This was my first time at the new Flagship Lounge at ORD and it is light years better than the old one. It was like….a Delta Skyclub? But less crowded and a slightly enhanced menu. First thing I did was take a shower, which was very nice.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge ORD
American Airlines Flagship Lounge ORD
Shower Room, American Airlines Flagship Lounge ORD

The space was very open and inviting, but there was very little service or interaction with humans – even the bar was self-serve. The buffet was great, with salads, sushi, and heavy entrees – including really good lamb chops.  I enjoyed the Coke machine. My flight was delayed several times, so I spent a lot of time there- more than three hours.  The lounge did get busier as it got later, and the staff presence did as well; there was a weird quinoa/faro stir-fry-to-order station.

Food offerings,American Airlines Flagship Lounge ORD
Well-stocked drink fridges, American Airlines Flagship Lounge ORD
Self-serve drinks, American Airlines Flagship Lounge ORD

I got to my gate for the updated boarding time, which came and went with no updates from gate staff, because, American. Twenty minutes after the delayed scheduled boarding time, someone finally said boarding would begin shortly. They made everyone check rollaboards in groups 5 and later (I didn’t have one), but there was still a long back-up on the freezing jet bridge when I boarded about an hour late.  Of course, the overhead bins were largely empty.

Can we just leave please?

The plane was AA’s reconfigured terrible 737-800 with armrests for ants, hard thin seats, and no IFE. We waited on the tarmac after pushing back 30 minutes before taking off.  90 minutes later, I was back in DCA on a rough landing,  an hour late, where baggage claim was a disaster.

American “giving passengers what they want”

Well, that concludes my blogging of my January Around-the-World Adventure. In retrospect, I really wish I’d had a lot more time to do the trip as it was a lot in eleven days. But it’s a great privilege to be able to see any part of the world, even if only for a few days. Also, American sucks.

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